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INSIGHT: The Decade-Long Self-Driving Honeymoon Is Over. What’s Next?

Jan. 22, 2020, 9:00 AM

A decade of breathless self-driving hype and C-suite predictions came to a quiet, ignominious end recently when the industry failed to deliver on its promise of mass-market commercial deployment.

At last, reality has sunk in: Driverless cars are nowhere near ready for the open road.

And, despite having already spent tens of billions on autonomous systems, the industry enters this new year knowing that additional massive investment will be required to reach true automotive autonomy.

Even firms like Waymo and GM, whose tech stacks are rated among the most robust in the world, have been forced to delay commercial offerings or dramatically narrow their scope to purpose-built platforms or carefully geofenced environments.

With deadlines in the rearview and the sticker price ballooning, these trends will define the new year and decade.

The Era of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ Is Over

Building an app isn’t the same as engineering a car smart enough to drive itself, but Silicon Valley applied the same reckless methods in its pursuit of automotive autonomy.

Not only did that approach not yield road-ready cars—as it turns out, this stuff isn’t easy—but it severely impacted public confidence in the technology, industry, and policymakers to chart a responsible course forward.

  • Regulators and the public won’t allow for many more hiccups before heavy red tape rolls out.
  • The industry is sensitive at last to the unique and unyielding challenges of developing a self-driving car and is already smarting from new government oversight of giants of the web, so caution and collaboration will define the industry’s approach in the new year to trials and deployment.

In practice what does a newly chastened autonomous vehicle (AV) industry actually look like?

  • Expect new, significant investment in remote operation and virtual-based safety validation of AV systems.
  • Expect more constrained, conditional pilots, like campus or airport shuttles, where geography has been meticulously mapped and some of the chaos of the open road can be averted or at least controlled.
  • AV makers will stop talking about scaling across the country and focus instead on easier-to-navigate cities and climates.

It’s Musk vs. the World

2019 was the year of AV tie-ups for just about everyone—everyone, that is, except Tesla.

Having learned that going it alone was both costly and frustrating, the sector experienced a phase of rapid consolidation last year.

  • Once dotted with seemingly countless multi-million dollar start-ups helmed by MIT dropouts, much of the dealmaking has seen big tech companies or legacy car makers swallowing smaller, specialty firms to complement their own teams.
  • Even once-bitter rivals entered joint ventures to develop AVs.

Not Tesla, though.

The company previously partnered with a handful of chipmakers but has generally severed its vendor relationships and decided instead to produce critical componentry in-house.

This approach isn’t without its risks—cost chief among them—but that’s not to say it’s without advantages either. Whereas most major carmakers have entered into joint ventures (sometimes multiple) with rivals or their subsidiaries to create some stability at the expense of bureaucracy, Tesla can (and will) make decisions without needing to consult alliance partners.

The delta between it and its rivals grew only larger when legacy Detroit carmakers accused the company of treating the public as test dolls by deploying new advanced driver assistance systems.

Crucially, the criticism hasn’t served to modify Tesla’s behavior, but only to force the company to further withdraw into itself.

ADAS Reliance and Confusion Will Lead to More Deaths

Drivers are becoming increasingly reliant on advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), owing in part to widespread confusion about their scope and utility.

ADAS is not autonomy, but the two have been conflated in the automotive zeitgeist thanks to misleading branding.

This race toward the bottom will only sow further confusion and invite death and injury by drivers who mistakenly believe their ADAS-equipped car is capable of robotically ferrying them from point to point.

It can’t: You will crash and become yet another footnote in this race to autonomy.

The Feds Won’t Be Able to Stay on the Sidelines Much Longer

Federal regulators have generally managed to remain on the sidelines for fear of artificially stunting the technology.

Still, as self-driving applications become bolder and clash with an increasingly outmoded regulatory regime, this laissez-faire approach won’t remain a valid option much longer.

Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was in talks with GM to deploy a small fleet of robo-rideshare cars that lack human controls or safety drivers. GM’s NHTSA petition was the first, but it won’t be the last.

China Isn’t Going to Slow Down

When the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, the United States was leading China in the global AV arms race.

Whether that’s true a year from now remains to be seen.

The U.S. has tremendous incumbent advantages over China, chiefly talent and mature technology and automotive sectors, but Chinese firms have the full weight of a powerful central government behind it.

China’s automotive sector already produces more cars than any other nation. It also makes and sells more electric vehicles than anyone in the world—and not by accident.

Unlike the U.S., China’s government has a plan for the electrified, autonomous, shared automotive future and is rapidly removing regulatory hurdles to its goals.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information:

Eric J. Tanenblatt chairs the global public policy and regulation practice at Dentons and previously served as chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-Ga.) and as a senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.).

James A. Richardson serves as managing director in the public policy practice at the global law firm Dentons and previously advised Govs. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) and Jon Huntsman (R-Utah). He and Tanenblatt author The Driverless Commute, a comprehensive digest of the most important legal, political, and policy trends related to automotive autonomy.